Color Symbolism Essay (1)

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  • 7/28/2019 Color Symbolism Essay (1)



    Color-Symbolism in The Great Gatsby


    The vitality and beauty of F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing are perhaps nowhere5

    more strikingly exhibited than in his handling of the color-symbols in The Great

    Gatsby. We are all familiar with "the green light" at the end of Daisy's dockthat

    symbol of the "orgiastic future," the limitless promise of the dream Gatsby pursues

    to its inevitably tragic end; familiar, too, with the ubiquitous yellowsymbol of

    the money, the crass materialism that corrupts the dream and ultimately destroys it.10

    What apparently has escaped the notice of most readers, however, is both the range

    of the color-symbols and their complex operation in rendering, at every stage of

    the action, the central conflict of the work. This article attempts to lay bare the full


    The central conflict of The Great Gatsby, announced by Nick in the fourth15

    paragraph of the book, is the conflict between Gatsby's dream and the sordid

    realitythe foul dust which floats "in the wake of his dreams." Gatsby, Nick tells

    us, "turned out all right in the end"; the dreamer remains as pure, as inviolable, at

    bottom, as his dream of a greatness, an attainment "commensurate to [man's]

    capacity for wonder." What does not turn out all right at the end is of course the20

    reality: Gatsby is slain, the enchanted universe is exposed as a world of wholesale

    corruption and predatory violence, and Nick returns to the Midwest in disgust. As

    we shall see, the color-symbols render, with a close and delicate discrimination,both the dream and the realityand these both in their separateness and in their

    tragic intermingling.25

    Now the most obvious representation, by means of color, of the novel's basic

    conflict is the pattern of contrasting lights and darks. Gatsby, Nick tells us, is "like

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    an ecstatic patron of recurrent light." His imagination has created a "universe of

    ineffable gaudiness," of "a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty"a world of such

    stirring vividness that it may be represented now by all the colors of the rainbow30

    (Gatsby's shirts are appropriately "coral and apple-green and lavender and faint

    orange, with monograms of Indian blue"), now simply by light itself, by glitter, by

    flash. In his innocence, Gatsby of course sees only the pure light of the grail which

    he has "committed himself" to follow. The reader, however, sees a great deal more:

    sees, for example, the grotesque "valley of ashes," "the gray land and the spasms of35

    bleak dust which drift endlessly over it"the sordid reality lying beneath the

    fictions of the American dream of limitless Opportunity and Achievement.

    If for a time "the whole front" of Gatsby's mansion "catches the light," if the

    house, "blazing with light" at two o'clock in the morning, "looks like the World's

    Fair," the reader understands why it comes to be filled with an inexplicable amount40

    of dust everywhere and why "the white steps" are sullied by "an obscene word,

    scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick." Fair and foul is the intermingling of

    [13/14] dream and reality; as Nick observes in Chapter VIII, there is a "gray-

    turning, gold-turning light" in the mansion, and the moral problem for the young

    Mid-westerner is to prevent himself from mistaking the glittering appearance for45

    the true state of things.

    The light-dark symbolism is employed with great care. It is not accidental, for

    example, that Daisy and Jordan, when they are introduced to the reader in the first

    scene of the novel, are dressed in white. In this scene, in which almost all of the

    color symbols are born, Nick tells us that "the only completely stationary object in50

    the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as

    though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were

    rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight

    around the house."

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    White traditionally symbolizes purity, and there is no doubt that Fitzgerald55

    wants to underscore the ironic disparity between the ostensible purity of Daisy and

    Jordan and their actual corruption. But Fitzgerald is not content with this obvious

    and facile symbolism. White, in this early appearance in the novel, is strongly

    associated with airiness, buoyancy, levitation. One is reminded of the statement in

    Chapter VI that for Gatsby "the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's60

    wing." Daisy and Jordan seem about to float off into the air because they areto

    both Gatsby and Nicka bit unreal, like fairies (Daisy's maiden name is Fay); and

    they are in white because, as we learn in Chapter VII, to wear white is to be "an

    absolute little dream":

    [Daisy's] face bent into the single wrinkle of the small white neck. "You65

    dream, you. You absolute little dream."

    "Yes," admitted the child calmly. "Aunt Jordan's got on a white dress too."

    The white Daisy embodies the vision which Gatsby (who, like Lord Jim,

    usually wears white suits) seeks to embracebut which Nick, who discovers the

    corrupt admixture of dream and reality, rejects in rejecting Jordan. For, except in70

    Gatsby's extravagant imagination, the white does not exist pure: it is invariably

    stained by the money, the yellow. Daisy is the white flowerwith the golden

    center. If in her virginal beauty she "dressed in white, and had a little white

    roadster," she is, Nick realizes, "high in a white palace the king's daughter, the

    golden girl." Her voice is "like money"; she carries a "little gold pencil"; when she75

    visits Gatsby there are "two rows of brass buttons on her dress."

    As for the "incurably dishonest" Jordan, she displays a "slender golden arm"

    and "a golden shoulder"; her fingers are "powdered white over their tan"; the lamp-

    light shines "bright on ... the autumn-leaf yellow of her hair." When she enters the

    hotel with Daisy, both are wearing "small tight hats of metallic cloth"; and when80

    Nick sees them both lying on the couch a second time, they are "like silver idols

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    weighing down their own white dresses against the singing breeze of the fans"

    the silver, of course, symbolizing both the dream and the reality, since as the color

    of the romantic stars and the moon (the first time we observe Gatsby he is gazing

    up at the "silver pepper of the stars") it is clearly associated with the romantic hope85

    and promise that govern Gatsby's life, and as the color of money it is obviously a

    symbol of corrupt materialism. [14/15]

    Both Jordan and Daisy are enchantingbut false. And Nick's attitude toward

    them is identical with his attitude toward life in the East. In the apartment in New

    York with Tom and Myrtle, he tells us that he is like the "casual watcher in the90

    darkening streets" looking up and wondering" at "our line of yellow windows" in

    the "long white cake of apartment-houses": "I was within and without,

    simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."

    Viewed from "without," the windows glow with all the beauty and potency of the

    Dream; but "within" the apartment, Nick observes only greed, irresponsibility,95

    conspicuous waste: he recognizes that the glow of the windows is that of money,

    not of enchantment. If, like Gatsby, he has tasted "the incomparable milk of

    wonder," he discovers that the milk will presently sour: turn yellow.

    These conjunctions of white and yellow in contexts exhibiting the contrast

    between the dream and the reality are so numerous that most readers are likely to100

    perceive the symbolic functioning of the colors. The symbolism of blue and red is

    less obvious.

    The first striking reference to blue occurs at the beginning of Chapter II, where

    Fitzgerald describes the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg peering out over the Valley

    of Ashes, "above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust." The eyes of Doctor105

    T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantictheir retinas are one yard high. They look

    out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass

    over a non-existent nose.

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    When, later in the novel, Wilson, staring at these same eyes, says, "God sees

    everything," and Michaelis contradicts him, "That's an advertisement," it is clear110

    that Fitzgerald wants us to view T. J. Eckleburg as a symbol of the corruption of

    spirit in the Waste Landas if even God has been violated by materialism and

    hucksterismreduced to an advertisement. This might suggest that blue

    symbolizes a certain ideality; but the meaning of the symbol is not defined until we

    reach Chapter III, which begins: "There was music from my neighbor's house115

    through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and women came and went

    like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars."

    The romantic blue is obviously associated with the promise, the dream, that

    Gatsby has mistaken for reality. Fitzgerald is even more explicit in Chapter VII:

    "Our eyes lifted over the rose-beds and the hot lawn and the weedy refuse of the120

    dog-days along shore. Slowly the white wings of the boat moved against the blue

    cool limit of the sky. Ahead lay the scalloped ocean and the abounding blessed


    Here blue and white become the symbols of the ultimate bliss, the ideal

    perfection which Gatsby's parties in the blue gardens seem to promise. If, later on125

    when the parties are over, it is necessary to repair "the ravages of the night before";

    if the "five crates of oranges and lemons" that arrive every Friday, leave the back

    door "in a pyramid of pulpless halves"; if the parties degenerate into ugliness and

    violence and "a sudden emptiness" falls upon the housethat is, after all, no more

    than we have already learned to expect: the white and the blue of the dream are130

    inevitably sullied by the yellow. So T. J. Eckleburg's blue eyes are surrounded by

    yellow spectacles; so the music in the blue gardens is "yellow [15/16] cocktail

    music"; so the chauffeur in a uniform of "robin's-egg-blue" turns out to be "one of

    Wolfsheim's proteges." Gatsby begins his ascent toward Greatness when Dan Cody

    takes the young man to Duluth and buys him "a blue coat, six pairs of white duck135

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    trousers, and a yachting cap." But on the day of his death his clothes change color

    symbolicallyas we shall see after examining the symbolism of red.

    The first striking reference to red occurs in Chapter I, where Nick tells us that

    he "bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities, and

    they stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to140

    unfold the shining secrets that Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew." It is

    possible that Fitzgerald's choice of red in this context is arbitrary, but a study of the

    many appearances of the color in the novel, and especially of its appearances in

    conjunction with yellow and white, suggests strongly that red should be interpreted

    not merely as image but as symbol. In fact it has, I believe, the same signification145

    as yellow: that is, it may represent either the "ineffable gaudiness" of the dream or

    the ugliness of the reality.

    It stands for the dream because it is one of the glittering colors of Gatsby's

    romantic universe. We remember that Gatsby describes himself as a collector of

    jewels, "chiefly rubies," and in Chapter VI Nick remarks ironically: "I saw him150

    opening a chest of rubies to ease, with their crimson-lighted depths, the gnawings

    of his broken heart." Gatsby's bedazzlement by the crimson rubies is matched by

    the awed Nick's wonder at what is to him, at the beginning of the novel, the almost

    enchanted world of the Buchanans. Entering this world of the rich, Nick is dazzled

    by the glowing light, the reds, and the rosiness: he walks "through a high hallway155

    into a bright rosy-colored space"; there is "a rosy-colored porch, open toward the

    sunset, where four candles flickered on the table in the diminished wind"; the

    French windows are "glowing . . . with reflected gold"; there is "a half acre of

    deep, pungent roses"; later on, "the crimson room bloomed with light," and on his

    way home he observes how "new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light."160

    Red, in these passages, is glitter, is enchantment, is dream; but there is another

    and a more interesting reason for the frequent occurrence of the color. As the color

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  • 7/28/2019 Color Symbolism Essay (1)



    at one of Gatsby's partiesthose strange tributes to the Dream which end always190

    in violencewhere "one of the girls in yellow was playing the piano, and beside

    her stood a tall, red-haired young lady from a famous chorus, engaged in song"; the

    violence occurs only moments later when Nick discovers, in a ditch beside the

    road, a new coupe shorn of one wheel. So much for the basic color-symbols, the

    four primaries. But since, as we have already seen, one of Fitzgerald's techniques is195

    to call attention to the conjunctions of his colors, that tragic and pervasive

    mingling of dream and reality, we are not surprised to find the writer refining his

    palette so as to exhibit, in a single word, the wedding of the pure and the corrupt.

    White and red, for example, may blend to produce pink, the color of the dream

    stained by violenceor, again, (a simpler interpretation) one of the colors of200

    Gatsby's adolescent universe. In Chapter V, when Daisy excitedly summons

    Gatsby to observe "a pink and golden billow of foamy clouds above the sea," the

    pink is obviously part of the picture-postcard Fairyland; but when, after Myrtle's

    death, Nick, visiting Gatsby in the mansion which contains the "inexplicable

    amount of dust," sees the dreamer no longer in his customary white but in pink205

    "His gorgeous pink rag of a suit made a bright spot of color against the white

    steps"the suit would seem to be not merely gaudy but blood-stained. Gatsby

    remains incorruptible, but his house and his clothes reveal the sordidness of the

    reality. Similarly, in the charged context of events following the murder, it is

    scarcely surprising to observe, with Nick, the "pink glow from Daisy's room on the210

    second floor" of the Buchanans' house-the glow of enchantment and of blood, of

    princess and murderess.

    Another blending of the primaries is exhibited in Gatsby's car: "I'd seen it.

    Everybody had seen it. It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here

    and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes215

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    and tool boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a

    dozen suns. . . . With fenders spread like wings we scattered light through half

    Astoria. . . ." [17/18]

    The glitter of the car is exactly that of the white palaces of East Egg glittering

    along the water, and like the dresses of Jordan and Daisy, the car posse...


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